Perhaps the Ford EcoBoost 400, the final race of the 2013 NASCAR Winston Cup season, ended the way it should have – with more than one compelling story.
—- After 400 miles of racing, Jimmie Johnson won his sixth career championship. The Hendrick Motorsports driver now has just one less title than Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, the sport’s titans.
—- When the green flag fell at Homestead-Miami Speedway, all Johnson was 28 points ahead of challenger Matt Kenseth and had only to finish 23rd or better to lock up the title.
Kenseth had a remarkable race, one in which he did all that was humanly possible to wrest the championship out of Johnson’s hands.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led 144 laps, twice as many as any other competitor, and finished second. Had any misfortune struck Johnson – which, admittedly, was not likely – Kenseth would be the 2013 champ.
—- A back injury that forced Denny Hamlin to miss four races earlier this year all but obliterated his chances to make the Chase, much less win a championship.
But Hamlin resuscitated his season with a victory at Homestead, his first of the year and the 23rd of his career.
Hamlin, Kenseth’s teammate at Gibbs, has now won at least once in each of his eight full Sprint Cup seasons.
—- Johnson finished ninth at Homestead to win the title by 19 points over Kenseth and 34 over Kevin Harvick, the only other driver with at least a mathematical chance at the championship, who finished 10th.
Johnson won his sixth title at age 38. Petty was also 38 and Earnhardt was 42.
It is abundantly clear Johnson will have the opportunity to win a seventh title and maybe more. Petty said he wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson won eight to 10 titles.
Despite the fact that Johnson isn’t the most popular driver in NASCAR, the inarguable fact is that he is one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.
Five of his six championships were won in succession from 2006-2010, which easily eclipsed Cale Yarborough’s three in a row from 1976-1978 and stood as the NASCAR record until Johnson’s singular achievement.
His six victories this season were second only to Kenseth’s seven. Johnson now has 66 career wins, which puts him in eighth place on NASCAR’s all-time list.
Johnson has never been one to blow his own horn. But he does realize the future will offer him opportunities to embellish his own legacy.
“I look forward to the opportunity,” Johnson said. “I hope that I can certainly accomplish more.
“I feel like this team is capable of a lot of great things. There are still great years out ahead of us. But all of that is in the future, a seventh, an eighth. Richard said eight to ten. That’s all ahead of us.
“I don’t want to focus on that yet. It’s not time. I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth, and let it soak in. We’ll get to Daytona for testing soon enough. I guess by then it’s probably appropriate to ask the question.”
And Johnson also realizes what has been said, and written, about him by his peers and the media.
“I’m humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors and owners, my peers in this industry,” Johnson said. “I think their opinion is very important. I don’t think my opinion matters. It’s not for the athlete, the driver. It’s bestowed upon you; it’s passed down from others.
“If others are saying it, I’m not going to deny it, chase it away. Sure, I would love to be considered the greatest driver.
“But if you look at stats, there’s still numbers out there that I need to achieve. That’s why I say that until I hang my helmet up, it’s not necessarily a fair conversation to have.
“I’m honored to be in the conversation and I know I will have to face it, especially being this close to seven and having a shot to tie those guys.”
—- Kenseth, the 2003 champion, had been this year’s points leader for six of the Chase’s first eight races but lost it following Martinsville.
He was still in striking distance until Phoenix, where he had his worst showing in the Chase. He finished 23rd to give Johnson the 28-point pad he had going into Homestead.
It was too much for Kenseth to overcome – but not because he didn’t try hard.
Second place and 144 laps led clearly indicate Kenseth, in his first season with Gibbs, made a strong run to win the title.
“We had a good night – we were really dominant when the sun was out,” he said. “We struggled a little bit when it went down and a lot of that will lay on the driver who was probably a little reluctant to get up in the groove where I needed to run to make any speed.
“It was just an unbelievable year for us really. Obviously, we wanted to finish off and win the championship as good as we ran all year, but I couldn’t be more proud of the whole team.
“They did a spectacular job all season and all day today again.”
—- Hamlin’s victory meant a one-two finish for Gibbs. More important, it provided momentum for Hamlin, who said he and his team need to boost their efforts for 2014.
“This just just gives us huge momentum,” Hamlin said. “We started kicking things into gear about two months ago and then last week (Phoenix) with a horrific effort that kind of gets your spirits down.
“But then, to come here to Miami and back it up with a win, well, this is something we can think about for the entire winter.”
Indeed, Hamlin and Kenseth have momentum and look forward to better things in 2014.
But so does Jimmie Johnson, who may well enhance his legacy in seasons to come.